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48. Jesus and the Religious Leaders


We all are familiar with the term “pharisaism.” What is pharisaism? Let me tell you a story before I give you my own definition.

A teacher in a public school was teaching her third grade students about mammals in the sea. She mentioned that the whale is a large animal living in the sea. Even though it is one of the largest sea creatures, it has a very narrow throat, and so it cannot swallow an adult human being.

A girl in the class spoke up, “But it swallowed Jonah!”

“No,” the teacher said, “It just cannot swallow an adult human being. Because, as I said, even though it is a large animal, it has a very narrow throat and so cannot swallow an adult human being.”

The girl persisted, “Well, when I go to heaven, I will ask Jonah.”

“What if Jonah is not in heaven; what if he is in hell?” the teacher asked.

The girl’s response, “Then you ask him!”

You laughed, didn’t you? Why? Because you made a value judgment on that teacher. You made a value judgment that the girl was going to heaven, the teacher was going to hell and, more important than that, you will be in heaven, because unlike that teacher, you believe the Word of God.

This gives us the definition of pharisaism. Pharisaism is making a value judgment on someone else based on one’s own assumed secure position.

Of course, making a value judgment is not always wrong. We have to make value judgments all the time. Our value judgment on that teacher may not be wrong either. Because of the cultural environment we live in, because of the strong, humanistic philosophy in the field of education today, and because of the strong opposition towards evangelical Christianity today, we are probably safe to make such a value judgment.

However, what we have to be aware of is that before we make any value judgment on someone else, we have to examine how secure our own assumed position is. When it comes to pharisaism, sincerity really does not matter. You can be extremely sincere, and yet sincerely wrong!

The best examples of this, of course, are the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, the chief among them being the Pharisees, from whom the word “pharisaism” is coined.

Who were the Religious Leaders of Jesus’ Time?

Pharisees - The most known of the religious leaders were the Pharisees. They were a religious party. The word “Pharisee” literally means “Separatist,” the name given to them by their opponents because of their “holier than thou” haughty attitude. Their supreme aim was to strictly follow both the written and oral law.

They looked down upon the common people who did not have the slightest chance of fulfilling the complex requirements of the Law. However, the common people admired the Pharisees as representing the ideal followers of Judaism. The Pharisees had such a hold on the common people that no governing power could afford to disregard them.

However, not all Pharisees were bad. Many of them actually tried to promote true spirituality and piety. Some of the well known men of the New Testament were Pharisees such as, Nicodemus (John 3), Gamaliel (Acts 5:34), and Paul himself (Philippians 3:5). Some of them became members in the early church (Acts 6:7). Paul used the title of Pharisee with great respect and as a title of honor (Philippians 3:5).

What Jesus condemned was their hypocrisy, as evidenced by their pride in their outward observance of the law but inward spiritual void, and their arrogant belief that they were more religious than the rest. They in return accused Jesus of blasphemy (Luke 5:21), in league with the devil (Matthew 9:34), and of breaking the law (Matthew 12:2) which prompted them to seek to destroy Him (Matthew 12:14).

Scribes - Their job was to study and expound the law. The Pharisees were a religious party, whereas the scribes held religious office. Most of the scribes belonged to the Pharisaic party, whereas not all Pharisees were scribes.

Scribes claimed positions of first rank, sought public acclaim of the people and wore long and expensive robes.

They were the strongest opponents of Jesus because He refused to be bound by the letter of the law (John 5:10; Mark 7:7-13). They kept close watch over whatever He said and did (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; 15:2).

Sadducees - Unlike the scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees were a political party favorable to the Roman government. They were priests of Jewish aristocratic class. All Sadducees were priests, but not all priests were Sadducees. They accepted only the written law and rejected the traditions of the Pharisees. They denied bodily resurrection (Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27; Acts 4:1-2; 23:8), the existence of the angels (Acts 23:8), and the sovereignty of God over human affairs, and believed that man is the master of his own destiny.

Because of these theological differences, they did not have a cordial relationship with the Pharisees. However, they joined with the Pharisees in confronting Jesus to show them a sign from heaven (Matthew 16:1). They also raised a question to Jesus about the resurrection (Matthew 22:23).

Most of the criticism of Jesus was directed against the Pharisees, except on one occasion when He warned the disciples of the leaven of the Sadducees (Matthew 16:6, 11).

Herodians - The Herodians were neither a religious sect nor a political party. They were Jews who supported the Herodian dynasty. They also joined with the Pharisees to oppose Jesus and attempted to trap Him by asking Him whether it was proper to pay tribute to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22 and Mark 12:13-17; 3:6 are the only mention of them in the New Testament.).

Although there were many theological and political differences among these four groups and they hated each other strongly, they united in a common cause against Jesus. However, Jesus’ most scathing rebuke was reserved for the scribes and the Pharisees who joined together as a group in hatred and strong opposition of Him.

Jesus’ major encounter with the Sadducees was only on one occasion when they raised the question about the resurrection and marriage (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38). Similarly, His only encounter with the Herodians was when they were incited by the Pharisees to raise the question about paying taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17). There is no mention of the Herodians acting by themselves to oppose Jesus. But as mentioned above, His most scathing rebuke was reserved for the scribes and Pharisees.

Why? Humanly speaking, if anybody needed the message of God’s salvation, it would have been the Sadducees. Sadducees were the modern-day rationalists who did not see any need of God or the supernatural. Following a humanistic philosophy, they put man in the center of the universe as the master of his own destiny. If anybody needed the convincing proof of God and His revelation, it would have been the Sadducees.

Or, Jesus could have picked a fight with the Herodians. Like the present-day civil libertarians, they always argued for the separation of the state and organized religion. Or, like the modern day politicians, they tried to solve all the social and moral problems by the involvement of the government. If anybody needed to be taught that only God can solve the social problems and take care of the need of the human heart, it would have been the Herodians.

But Jesus reserved His most scathing rebukes for the Pharisees and the scribes who without doubt were the most religious people of His time. They followed the law extremely carefully and were guardians of the religious establishment of Jesus’ time. Like Paul before his conversion, they lived according to the strictest code of the Jewish religious system (Acts 26:5; Philippians 3:5).

However, in their close scrutiny of the Law and in their best human efforts to keep the minutest details of the Law, they became blind even to the clearest revelation of the living Word of God. They were very sincere, but sincerely wrong in the value judgments they made about Jesus.

In their confrontation with Jesus, two basic issues were involved: 1) His relation with God the Father; His claims of being equal with the Father, and 2) His relationship with man; His mingling with the lowest class of people in the society; He came to serve and not to be served.

Dispute about His Relation with God the Father

The scribes and Pharisees opposed Jesus in relation to His claims of being equal with God, and they objected to every claim that He made about His being equal with the Father:

1) They objected to His use of the title “Son of God” for Himself. The Pharisees and scribes knew their theology well. When Jesus called God His Father, they knew what He meant was being of the same nature as God; i.e., equal with God, or God Himself:

But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:17-18).395

John MacArthur states in his Study Bible notes on John 1:17-47:

These verses reveal the ultimate reason Jesus confronted the Jews’ religious hypocrisy, i.e., the opportunity to declare who He was. This section is Christ’s own personal statement of His deity. As such, it is one of the greatest Christological discourses in Scripture. Herein Jesus makes 5 claims to equality to God: 1) He is equal with God in His person (vv. 17,18); 2) He is equal with God in His works (vv. 19, 20); 3) He is equal with God in His power and sovereignty (v. 21); 4) He is equal with God in His judgment (v. 22); and 5) He is equal with God in His honor (v. 23).396

At another occasion where Jesus again asserted His deity by calling Himself equal with God, the Jews picked up stones, accusing Him of blasphemy:

“My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” The Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (John 10:29-33).

2) They also objected to His using the title “Messiah” or “Christ.” Again, they knew their theology and rightly understood that by using this title Jesus was claiming Himself to be the promised heir of David, who will sit on David’s throne and rule for eternity. As the Gospel of Mark notes:

Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with clouds of heaven.” And tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death (Mark 14:61-64; also Matthew 26:63-66; Luke 22:67-71).

Another Messianic title that has been used for Jesus is “the Son of David.” It has been used 15 times in the 3 Synoptic gospels. Although Jesus Himself never used this title for Himself, the Pharisees and the scribes objected to other people using it for Him. During the triumphal entry, the crowd shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9). Then Matthew notes,

“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were crying out in the temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became indignant and said to Him, ‘Do You hear what these are saying?’” (Matthew 21:15, 16a).

What they meant to tell Him was that calling You the Son of David is blasphemy; why don’t You stop them?

3) The Pharisees and scribes objected to His claim of supremacy over and existence before Abraham. This was another occasion when they picked up stones to stone Him:

“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad.” The Jews therefore said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM.” Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple (John 8:56-59).

4) They objected to Jesus’ claim to have authority to forgive sins. Again, the scribes and the Pharisees knew their theology well. They rightly understood that only God, against Whom every sin has been committed, has the right to forgive sins and anyone who claims to have that right, or who tries to exercise that right, makes himself equal with God.

In the incident of the healing of the paralytic man, instead of telling him to rise up and walk, Jesus told him, “Your sins are forgiven you.” At this the scribes and the Pharisees began murmuring, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” And Jesus’ response was, “But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins ” (Matthew 9:6; also Mark 2:7-10; Luke 5:21-24).

5) Because Jesus kept asserting His deity and making claims about His being equal to God the Father, the scribes and the Pharisees demanded that He provide them some proofs, some miraculous signs that would undoubtedly show that He was really who He was claiming Himself to be: God incarnate.

As Matthew, Mark, and Luke note:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah, the prophet” (Matthew 12:38-39; also Matthew 16:4; Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11:29).

Similarly, John notes:

They said therefore to Him, “What shall we do that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” They said therefore to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, that we may see, and believe You? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread out of heaven to eat” (John 6:28-31).

Like most of us, they wanted to see God in great and miraculous things, so when they saw God in the humble servant, even the great miracles Jesus performed did not matter, and they missed the blessing. And so they committed the unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit:

Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Sprit shall not be forgiven. And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come (Matthew 12:31-32; also Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10).

So, the first of the two basic issues raised by the scribes and the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus was their denial of the deity of Christ. They would not accept Christ’s claims as being equal to or one with God, the Father.

Dispute about His Relationship with Man

The second of the two most basic issues was about the way Christ related Himself to man.

1) He became a friend of “sinners.” Luke notes:

“Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2).

This is where Jesus gave them various parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son, and spoke about “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

All three of the Synoptic Gospels note the incident about Jesus having a feast at the house of Matthew, the tax collector turned disciple, and the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled about that:

And it came about that He was reclining at table at his [Matthew’s] house, and many tax-gatherers and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. And when the scribes and the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?” And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:15-17; also Matthew 9:10-12; Luke 5:29-30).

2) He did not observe their traditions. Another issue the Pharisees and the scribes raised in opposition to Jesus was that in His social relations He did not observe their traditions. When they saw some of the disciples eating bread without first washing their hands according to the Jewish tradition, the Pharisees and the scribes questioned Jesus, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the traditions of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” (Mark 7:5).

On one occasion when Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee and He began to eat without first washing His hands, “when the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not ceremonially washed before the meal” (Luke 11:37-38).

3) He violated their Sabbath views. Many of His miracles of healing were performed on Sabbaths, and the religious leaders saw in it the blatant disregard to the sacred Law.

When the Pharisees saw the disciples pick heads of grain and eat on a Sabbath day, they questioned Jesus, “Behold Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath” (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5).

When they saw a man with a withered hand in the synagogue, they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? – in order that they might accuse Him” (Matthew 12:10). Jesus’ answer was:

What man shall there be among you, who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:11-12).

On another occasion when Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on a Sabbath day and healed a woman, “who for eighteen years had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double and could not straighten up at all,” Luke notes:

And the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the multitude in response, “There are six days in which work should be done; therefore come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day. But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall, and lead him away to water him? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:14-16).

At one time Jesus healed a man on a Sabbath day even at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees:

And it came about when He went into a house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat break, that they were watching Him closely. And there, in front of Him was a certain man suffering from dropsy. And Jesus answered and spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they kept silent. And He took hold of him, and healed him, and sent him away. And He said to them, “Which one of you shall have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” And they could make no reply to this (Luke 14:1-6).

The man lying sick at the pool of Bethesda was also healed on a Sabbath day and John notes, “For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (John 5:16).

The healing of the man born blind was performed on a Sabbath day (John 9:14), and some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath” (John 9:16).

It seems that Jesus intentionally performed many of the miracles of healing on the Sabbath day just to make a point with the religious leaders about their blindness of keeping the letter of the Law at the cost of what the Law really required. Jesus told the religious leaders in the context of the Sabbath dispute, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent’” (Matthew 12:7 with Hosea 6:6). And, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). He asked them,

“If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath that the Law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:23-24).

Another point Jesus wanted to make by repeatedly “breaking” the Sabbath is that He was above the Sabbath: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5). By continuing His work on the Sabbath, He wanted to show Himself as equal with God. When the Jews were persecuting Him because He was doing these things on the Sabbath, His answer was:

“My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:17-18).

So, they questioned His deity, and they objected to His service to humanity. Thus they violated the “golden” rule:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).

Prophesying to be wise, they became fools. Prophesying to be religious, they became godless. Prophesying to be righteous, they became evil. And the result was their outward show of religiosity with an inward void of spirituality.

For this reason Jesus condemned all their good works: their almsgiving (Matthew 6:2), their prayers (Matthew 6:5), their fasting (Matthew 6:16-18) and their tithing (Matthew 23:23). All these good works were performed for one purpose—to show off. All these practices brought pride for self and contempt for others, as seen in the incident of the tax-gatherer and the Pharisee praying together (Luke 18:9-14). But inside they were like white-washed tombs:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:27-28, and the rest of the chapter).

Who Is a Pharisee in My Life?

You see, all of us live with a Pharisee! It is not your spouse, not your neighbor, or a friend or a co-worker. No, it is not even your church leaders. The Pharisee we all live with is the capital “I.”

As we condemn pharisaism, let us be careful to see the log in our own eyes. What is our attitude in worship? In good works? What is our attitude towards others? Is it judgmental? Am I putting myself first in everything? Am I always finding faults in others and never accepting my own? Am I always critical and negative, or, loving, kind, and understanding?

The golden rule of the Old Testament, to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself, was reiterated by Jesus in stark contrast to the pharisaism of the day (Matthew 22:37-40).

Remember the definition of pharisaism? It is making a value judgment on someone else based on my own assumed secure position. But before we make a value judgment on someone else, we need to check our own position to see how secure it is, because you may be very sincere, and yet sincerely wrong.

394 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 65 in the From Creation to the Cross series prepared by Imanuel Christian on February 10, 2002.

395 Unless otherwise indicated, all the Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible, ÓThe Lockman foundation, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, La Habra, California.

396 John MacArthur, The John MacArthur Study Bible, (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997) p. 1587.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)

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